Somatic Training for the Performer*

“Somatics is a word coined by Thomas Hanna in 1976 that designates the “experienced body in contrast to the objectified body.  When the body is experienced from within, the body and mind are not separated but are experienced as a whole………  ‘Somatics’ also names a field of study—the study of the body through the personal experiential perspective.”  From Sensing, Feeling and Action by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen.

The somatic training aspect of the Naropa Contemporary Performance MFA program asserts the continuity, play and inseparability of the body and the mind.   When awareness is aligned with action, then a clear intention finds full expression.  There are many ways and techniques to synchronize mind and body, to align our inner and outer worlds, to bring together our “heart” and our “heads”. In the MFA program this training is embedded in all of the basic work; physical training, improvisation, the acting work, voice, and mindfulness and awareness based meditation.  The basic techniques for developing synchronicity of body and mind are movement, visualization and image work, somatization, vocalization, improvisation, and meditation.

While the development of “the experienced body” is a component of all the training in the MFA program, a core component of this approach is the experiential anatomy and somatization that is specific to the work of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen and BMC(R). Bonnie Cohen uses the term “somatization” to “engage the kinesthetic experience directly, in contrast to “visualization” which utilizes visual imagery to evoke a kinesthetic experience. Through somatization the body’s cells are informing the brain as well as the brain informing the cells.”[1]

The primary implication of this approach is that we can utilize the “consciousness” or “mind” of every part and system of the body as a source for  releasing blockages and habitual patterns of response. Concurrently within this approach, we are developing an infinite palette of possibilities of emotional and physical creative expression.

As an essential tool for the performer, the somatic focus, offers an in-depth study of the possibilities of the body and it’s expressivity. It accomplishes this by bringing together both a cognitive, conceptual understanding (basic anatomy and function) with personal and experiential research (facilitated by movement, voice, breath,) The specificity and detail of the BMC approach allows us to call upon the inherent variety of texture and expression of all of the major systems of the body; the skeletal, muscular, organ, glandular, fluid, nervous systems as well as the vocal and respiratory systems.  For example, by fully embodying the qualities or mind of the skeletal system, the performer has direct, non-conceptual access to a primal and archetypal source for physical, emotional and vocal expression.

A truly embodied performer is a performer whose presence and synchronicity of body and mind is continuous and flawless. In this respect, a goal of the program is to train performers who express a continual flow between receptivity, processing and action. In essence, it is a dynamic balance between “being” and “doing”.

Another important aspect of the somatic training in the  MFA program is the study of Developmental Movement.  Human development occurs in a series of overlapping stages with movement patterns that reflect an evolutionary journey from a being’s origins as a one-celled organism.  The Basic Developmental Patterns (BNP) are movement sequences that lead us from our fetal mind and body of “being” to active engagement with our world through our “doing.”  As we embody these patterns, we reach back through our ontogenetic history and reclaim the roots of movement and locomotion. Since movement development is inseparable from emotional development, we tap into a natural integration of mind and body. We can also fill in any gaps in our personal movement history, further strengthening efficient patterns of movement and physicality. As an actor, we have access to a powerful source for movement and emotional expression.

In a larger context, Developmental Movement also gives us specific feedback and new information about how we learn and our personal process of integration through “sensing, perceiving and action”.  Understanding and experiencing our own development clarifies the natural processes of how we grow, change, create art, perform and teach.

* Excerpted from Somatic Techniques: A Curriculum source book for MFA Theater; Contemporary Performance. Available upon request.